The USHL's Chicago Steel aren't just talented; the team is over-stuffed with talent. That amount of skill in the lineup led Chicago to a regular-season title while averaging nearly five goals per game in a league that, traditionally, has been tough to score in.
Some of that bounty has been due to the strange pandemic landscape in hockey: Montreal Canadiens draft pick Sean Farrell, for example, would have been at Harvard had the Crimson not cancelled their season. So he returned to the Steel and promptly put up the USHL's first 100-plus point campaign in nearly a decade.
But the Steel have also been a magnet for talent in recent years and this squad is no exception. Along with Farrell, Chicago boasts NHL draft picks Ian Moore (ANA) and Joe Miller (TOR), plus a huge cohort of 2021 draft prospects led by potential first-rounder Mackie Samoskevich and top-60 hopefuls Matt Coronato and Ryan Ufko.
On top of that, Chicago has other potential late-round picks in Jackson Blake and Sam Lipkin, plus two youngsters that had to play 55 percent of the team's games through the USHL's tender rule: Adam Fantilli, a top prospect for the 2023 NHL draft, and Jake Livanavage (2022). And of course, veterans who need ice time as well. So how do they make sure everyone gets their time to shine? It's an interesting balance.
"The way we approach things here in Chicago is that development is the most important thing, especially the individual development of players," said coach Brock Sheahan. "So there were times during the year where we would play our roster a little differently than you would traditionally think. In the end, it helps our players get better, which helps the team get better."
Down the stretch, the team reverted to a more traditional format in order to gear up for the playoffs, but it was fascinating to watch the Steel this year with so many moving parts – all of whom held different levels of intrigue.
At some points, injuries to players like Samoskevich necessitated others to step up, while Blake and Lukas Gustafsson left mid-season to play for their respective high schools in Minnesota and Massachusetts. The team also didn't find their starting goalie until late January when Slovakia world juniors netminder Simon Latkoczy joined the fray.
But one of the most intriguing storylines of the season has been the ascent of Josh Doan, the Arizona State commit and son of NHL Coyotes legend Shane Doan. The right winger exploded for 70 points in 53 games after playing a smaller role on last year's squad, one that also had a ton of talent on it. Despite his NHL pedigree, Doan's physical progression has taken time.
"I think he was 5-foot-8 when he was drafted," Sheahan said. "Last year there was a plan in place for him not to play every game, for him to work off-ice on his body. He was 5-foot-10 at the start of last year and now he's 6-foot-2. That alone has made a difference, but also the work he's done on his skating, the work he's done in the weight room – and we knew he was a high-level thinker offensively and defensively."
Born in 2002, Doan was passed over in last year's NHL draft but that definitely won't happen again: scouts have been circling his name for selection this summer thanks to his big-time progression. Not that his coach would ever say 'I told you so,' but the Steel were promoting Doan last season.
"We were telling NHL teams last year to draft him in the seventh round because he wasn't even close to what he's going to be," Sheahan said. "And to be honest, he's still not physically developed. He's 180 pounds but in three years he'll play at over 200 pounds, is my guess. You add in the competitiveness and his ability to think the game and he isn't even close to his potential yet."
With last year's Clark Cup cancelled, the Steel didn't get a chance to go for a title they were well in line to win. This year, they're getting their chance and only one team stands in their way now: their opponent in the final, the Fargo Force.
The USHL's two conferences have been drastically different this season with high-powered attacks in Chicago and Muskegon ruling the East and big, heavy teams running the West (Fargo was the fourth seed, but only missed first by one point). The Clark Cup will be a fascinating collision and if the Steel want that trophy, they'll need all hands on deck. Luckily, they've got a lot of options.